Officials with the Tennessee Department of Health and the Hamilton County Health Department said their organizations will not immediately expand COVID-19 vaccinations to include people age 65 and older, despite a Tuesday announcement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking them to do so.
People age 75 and older, as well as people in phase 1a1 and 1a2, are now eligible for the vaccine in Hamilton County and many of the surrounding counties. Local and state health officials have said repeatedly in the past week they do not have enough doses to make the vaccine more widely available. Last week, the county closed its distribution site hours before vaccinations began because of high demand.
The local health department has not announced any additional vaccination days since Jan. 6 because no new shipments have arrived.
The county is looking at possible sites for vaccine distribution, including Enterprise South Nature Park. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday morning to discuss the local response to the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Alex Azar, secretary for HHS, said states should immediately start vaccinating lower-priority groups, including people age 65 and older. Azar also said the federal government would no longer withhold the required second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine in an attempt to double the available supply of doses.
Becky Barnes, Hamilton County Health Department administrator, said the county will not increase the group of people eligible for a dose until more people in the current phase receive doses.
"We will not move to open this age band up until the 75 and over [people] have had [an] opportunity to get vaccinated," Barnes said in a statement Tuesday. "We have very limited vaccine and have not been able to offer more opportunities."
A spokesperson from the state health department said Tennessee "continues to prioritize vaccination of Tennesseans aged 75 and older as they are most at risk for serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19" and the state will expand the eligible age groups once supply increases.
The state did not respond to questions about a projected timeline for when people age 65 or older would be eligible or when local health departments could expect another shipment of doses.
More than 8,800 vaccines had been administered in Hamilton County as of Jan. 7, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. During a county commission meeting last week, Coppinger said there were about 30,000 people over 75 in the county. Expanding the age bracket to people age 65 and older would mean adding around 35,000 more people to the eligible pool, according to population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Rae Bond, chair of the local COVID-19 task force, said Tuesday supply issues continue to hinder the local rollout of the vaccine.
"It's really clear the biggest challenge that we're facing currently remain the supply chain issues which are, frankly, out of control of both the state and the [county] health department," Bond said.
Bond said local leaders are pleased there is such high demand for the vaccine, even though that demand has led to long wait times and some people being turned away because of limited supply.
Tennessee is not the only state facing problems in distributing vaccines as people across the country grow frustrated at the slow rollout. The county is expected to launch an appointment system for people seeking the vaccine, similar to what the state announced last week. People who do not have access to the internet will be able to make appointments using a hotline, Barnes said.
The state reported Monday that 2.59% of the county's residents had received the first of two shots. Some surrounding counties with smaller populations reported higher percentages, though Hamilton County trails Knox and Davidson counties in terms of the percentage of the population that has received the first dose. Statewide, 221,164 people have received the first dose, according to the state health department.
The county health department reported 490 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, with 4,542 cases active in the county. There were 204 people hospitalized with the virus, including 60 people in the intensive care unit on Tuesday. In the past seven days, the county has reported 33 deaths from the virus and is averaging a positivity rate of around 28% on new tests.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.